Monday, June 28, 2010

Balak (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at 2006_06_15, and at July 2008 and July 2009.

Thoughts on the Parasha

This week’s portion differs from almost every other section of the Torah. Balak is a kind of self-enclosed unit; even its graphic appearance within the Torah displays this: until the last six or seven verses, which deal with a different matter, there is not a single “open” or “closed” parashah break throughout; it appears in the Torah scroll as four unbroken columns of text (there are only two or three other such unbroken parshiyot in the whole Torah). More important, its subject matter is unique: the reaction of a neighboring nation to Israel’s drawing near the Land of Canaan; their hiring a soothsayer–cum–prophet, Bilaam, to curse the nation and prevent its successful settlement in the Land; and Bilaam’s subordination by God, so-to-speak, to bless Israel rather than curse them.

I have often wondered—I must say, against the overwhelming consensus of the Rabbinic tradition, which paints Bilaam in dark colors indeed, and even against the Bible’s own “internal exegesis,” which is uniformly negative (see Num 31:8, 16; Deut 23:5, 6; Josh 13:22; 24:9, 10; Micah 6:5; Neh 13:2)—whether Bilaam in fact underwent an authentic, inner conversion to belief in the one God and His chosen nation, and an awareness of the limitations of his own hitherto much-vaunted magical powers, or was simply used, against his will, as a mouthpiece by God? This is an important question, which I’ve discussed here before (see HY I: Balak = [Torah]; July 2006), but the answer ultimately makes no difference to the meaning of this chapter in its context. The overwhelming message of our chapter is simply this: that Israel are a unique people, separate from all other nations and blessed by God, whose nature and place in the scheme of things cannot be changed by magical manipulations, and who are destined to outlive all their enemies. The dramatic impact of this message is reinforced by its presentation, not by Moses in one of his farewell feats of rhetoric (although he says such things many times), not by one of the prophets, not by a psalmist, but by a Gentile diviner in his own internal discourse. We, as Jews, reading this in our Torah, so-to-speak eves-drop on this conversation, making its truth all the more effective.

But if we are speaking of strikingly different and unusual moods found in various sections of the Torah, the latter half of last week’s parashah (Hukat) is virtually sui generis. Specifically, Numbers 21 somehow reads very differently from any other chapter of Torah that I know. There is something very basic, primitive, almost raw about it: talks of battles and victory over other nations; snippets of short poems, taken from long-forgotten annals or collections such as “the Book of the Wars of the Lord”; a strange song addressed to a well, which provided the people’s needs for water for an entire generation; a brazen serpent made by Moses, as an antidote to an attack of serpents that attacked the people (surely itself a quasi-magical act!). This chapter also includes what, in the Bible’s historiography, was a paradigmatic event: the defeat of Og and Sihon which, in Psalms 135 and 136, ranks almost with the Exodus as a manifestation of God’s great redemptive power (cf. Jos 12:4; 13:12, 31; 13:30; Neh 9:22; 1 Kgs 4:19; Jos 2:10; 9:10). Indeed, it was chapters such as these that were celebrated by certain secular Israelis who tried to use parts of the Bible as a guidebook for the recreation of Israel in the image of a normal, masculine, nation, unafraid to fight (what has been called “Moshe Dayan’s Bible”).

I find it interesting that Hukat–Balak are occasionally paired off as a double Torah reading (albeit only outside of the Land of Israel, where the Diaspora sometimes loses a week’s reading when the second day of a holiday—2nd Day of Shavuot or 8th Day of Pesah—falls on Shabbat; Hukat-Balak are then doubled up to catch up with the Torah schedule in Israel). It seems to me that, as with many of the double parshiyot, there is a certain inner relationship between the two. The latter is a kind of response to the former: the Israelites displayed themselves as fierce and threatening fighters, so Balak sought a remedy by hiring the most powerful wonder worker in the region to nullify their power.

Disciples of Abraham and Disciples of Bilaam

Turning to our theme for this year, aggadah, I shall kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, by presenting a teaching from Pirkei Avot (albeit not from this week’s chapter), that deals with a comparison of the Patriarch Avraham and Bilaam, the anti-hero of this week’s parashah. Avot 5.19 [17]:

Whosoever has [a certain] three traits is among the disciples of Abraham our Father; and three other traits, is among the disciples of Bilaam the evil one. A generous eye, a humble spirit, and lowly soul—he is of the disciples of Abraham our Father. An evil eye, a haughty spirit, and an expansive soul—he is among the disciples of the evil Bilaam.

What is the difference between the disciples of Abraham and the disciples of Bilaam the evil one? The disciples of Abraham our Father eat the fruits [of their deeds] in this world, and inherit the World to Come, as is said, “to inherit fulness to those that love me, and I shall fill their storehouses” (Prov 8:21). The disciples of Bilaam the evil one inherit Gehinnom (purgatory) and descend to the Pit of Oblivion, as is said, “And you, O God, shall bring them down to the pit of oblivion, men of violence and deceit, they shall not live out half their years—but as for me , I trust in You” (Ps 55:24).

This teaching in Pirkei Avot draws a comparison between Avraham, the father of the Jewish people, and Bilaam, who is viewed as the greatest prophet of the Gentile nations, broadening the screen from the realm of specific actions or even attitudes towards the people of Israel, or even faith in and obedience to God, to include basic ethical traits. The decent man, “disciple of Abraham,” is marked by generosity towards others, humility, and moderation in his material demands.

At first glance, one might think that the term nefesh shefelah, “a lowly spirit,” implies depression or an aura of sadness surrounding a person. However, from the contrast with nefesh rehavah, which is explained as referring to one who attaches great importance to creature comforts and material pleasure, we many infer that it simply means moderation in ones demands and expectations of life.

The Baal Shem Tov, as quoted by the Sefat Emet, asks an interesting question: what des it mean to speak of Bilaam, or of any person with evil traits, as having “disciples.” What is there to learn from him? It would seem that it is only goodness and ethical traits that need to be learned, to be acquired, as in some sense they go against the grain, the natural inclinations of human beings, who are naturally, “instinctively” inclined towards selfishness, graspingness, and such negative emotions as jealousy, anger, and envy of others (observe children in any kindergarten!); socialization is a conscious process. Indeed, the Baal Shem Tov gives a round-about, “hasidish” answer, bypassing the literal meaning of the passage. And indeed, the “disciples” of Bilaam are such only in a metaphorical sense. Evil requires no schooling.

Some say that this comparison of Avraham and Bilaam was prompted by the fact that the two are shown portrayed in parallel situations—getting up early to saddle their donkeys, and to set off on a journey, accompanied by two servants. Moreover, there was something unusual in this simple act, as both of them were prominent figures, who presumably had servants and retinues to perform the mundane act of saddling their mounts. Thus, we read at Sanhedrin 105b:

They taught in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar: Love negates the routine [of greatness]. [We learn this] from Abraham, of whom it is written “And Abraham rose early the morning [and saddled his donkey]” (Gen 22:3). Hatred nullifies the routine of greatness, as we learn from Bilaam, as is said “And Bilaam rose in the morning and saddled his she-ass” (Num 22:21).

Like the passage from Avot, this saying is brought, not only to teach about Avraham and BiIaam, but to make a more general ethical lesson: that powerful emotion in either direction cause people to depart from the normal routine and, in particular, to forego the gestures or behaviors of dignity which their social position society ordinarily require. The one motivated by great love—whether of another person or, as in Abraham’s case, of God—will act spontaneously, even impetuously, and disregard all social and other conventions or expectations., Likewise, one moved by great hatred, who wishes to destroy or humiliate his enemy, will act in like fashion.


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